Leonard, M.K., Torres, C., Travis, K.E., Brown, T.T., Hagler, D.J., Dale, A.M., Elman, J.L., & Halgren, E. (2011). Language proficiency modulates the recruitment of non-classical language areas in bilinguals. PLoS ONE, 6(3): e18240. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0018240. (Download)
Bilingualism provides a unique opportunity for understanding the relative roles of proficiency and order of acquisition in determining how the brain represents language. In a previous study, we combined magnetoencephalography (MEG) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to examine the spatiotemporal dynamics of word processing in a group of Spanish- English bilinguals who were more proficient in their native language. We found that from the earliest stages of lexical processing, words in the second language evoke greater activity in bilateral posterior visual regions, while activity to the native language is largely confined to classical left hemisphere fronto-temporal areas. In the present study, we sought to examine whether these effects relate to language proficiency or order of language acquisition by testing Spanish-English bilingual subjects who had become dominant in their second language. Additionally, we wanted to determine whether activity in bilateral visual regions was related to the presentation of written words in our previous study, so we presented subjects with both written and auditory words. We found greater activity for the less proficient native language in bilateral posterior visual regions for both the visual and auditory modalities, which started during the earliest word encoding stages and continued through lexico-semantic processing. In classical left fronto-temporal regions, the two languages evoked similar activity. Therefore, it is the lack of proficiency rather than secondary acquisition order that determines the recruitment of non-classical areas for word processing.